Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Baptist Studies Center to Open at Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology

The ongoing shifts within the landscape of theological higher education continue to intrigue me. Colleges and seminaries are merging or sharing campuses in order to avoid shutting down. In 2017, Episcopal Divinity School shut down its campus and became affiliated with Union Theological Seminary in New York. While the Episcopal school wasn't going to make it on its own, for Union it provides an enriched program that appeals to even more potential students. Something similar is happening now at Abilene Christian University.

Earlier this year tweets started appearing in my timeline that were lamenting the closure of Logsdon Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University. Here's a sample.

The reaction of Kelsey, Hunter, and the others to this news is understandable. They chose Logsdon for their seminary studies, learned from its professors, and lived as a community with a shared history and culture. That's no small loss. As I've indicated here and elsewhere, this also is an event that is repeating time and again as the market for theological education retracts. There are simply too many institutions for the demand. In the months since the announcement of its closing, an alternative has been in the works.
Myles Werntz will spend the fall semester building a new program for Abilene Christian University.
Affiliated with the Churches of Christ, ACU will open, under Werntz's leadership, a Baptist Studies Center within the graduate school of theology.
Werntz currently is the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University. His program was part of the latest cuts announced in February at HSU, along with the rest of the Logsdon Seminary.
It's important to note that this is not a continuation of Logsdon itself, as in the case of Episcopal Divinity School moving to Union Theological Seminary. Instead, it's an entirely new program, presumably intended to fill the gap left by Logsdon's closure. Werntz certainly has his work cut out for him, because although there will only be two courses to start with, he'll also have to network with Baptist churches to solicit support and recruit students. What Logsdon offered that helped attract students might also be a key feature of this new program.

Founded at a time when Southern Baptist Convention seminaries were turning away women called to be church pastors, Logsdon Seminary from the start fully affirmed both men and women in all positions of vocational ministry. Today about 35 percent of masters-level students are female, 30 percent are non-white and almost 17 percent are from countries other than the United States.
Conservative Texas Baptist pastors, in particular, have bristled at the support and prominence Logsdon has given to women ministers.

They and other critics have faulted Logsdon for exposing students to the beliefs and practices of religious Others, engaging in efforts of dialogue and mutual learning, rather than in strategies for conversion. They have objected when people outside Christianity, such as Imam Zia, a Muslim apologist and author; Marc Ellis, a non-Zionist Jewish intellectual; and Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson and a Hindu peacemaker; have been invited to the campus to speak in Logsdon-sponsored programs.

These detractors, including leaders of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (rebranded as Texas Baptists), have grimaced when Logsdon refused to take a public stand against same-sex marriage or condemn LGBTQ Christians who desire to explore how they might serve the Christ they follow.

And they have worried because Logsdon professors have provided safe spaces for students to struggle with doubt, wrestle with non-traditional theological ideas or value orthopraxy (conduct) over orthodoxy (doctrine).

To be clear, Logsdon Seminary was not so much open and affirming, as it was officially silent on the topic, as well as regarding marriage equality. Not exactly a noble stance, but at least it wasn't actively harmful, and made room for the conversations. If this was the case there, I can only hope that it will be such at Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology. While ACU has women enrolled studying for the ministry, contrary to the long-held and deeply entrenched views of a cappella Churches of Christ, the university's official policy toward lgbtq+ folx is mixed

A pair of Abilene Christian University policies have gotten major overhauls in recent weeks following outcry from the school's LGBTQ+ community and its supporters.

University President Phil Schubert sent an email to students, alumni, faculty and staff in late October detailing the school's updates to both the student code of conduct's sexual stewardship policy and the employee standards of conduct.

In the email, Schubert said the university remains committed to its interpretation of scripture but that the school is also seeking "a welcoming and participatory environment for all students, even those who disagree with ACU’s beliefs."

"Our desire is for all students to pursue relationships in keeping with our traditional view of marriage between a man and a woman, and to refrain from sexual activity outside of marriage," Schubert's email said. "We also acknowledge that an institution cannot control how students think, believe or identify regarding sexuality. Accordingly, ACU invites all students into a community where they can belong, grow and develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Although this policy extends to students employed by the school, there are exceptions, such as resident assistants. A separate policy exists for the remainder of the staff, including faculty, which requires sex only within a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. It wasn't until I left evangelicalism behind and had a few years to deconstruct (a work forever in progress) that I realized how crazy it is that there are organizations that make requirements regarding the sex lives of employees. Copulation rules are really very weird, but the result of the Puritan mindset that evangelicalism carries on. Sex is obsessed over, while weightier matters of justice are left for God to sort out in the sweet by and by. 

Next Spring I'll be starting at ACU's Graduate School of Theology, using the low-residency model. I've chosen this school because their MDiv program matched precisely what I had been looking for, what I wanted ever since graduating with my BMin from Harding University in 1999. That said, I'm not innocent of the fact that as a Unitarian Universalist I'll be the odd-one-out. Their concept of 'progressive' is not the same as that I'm familiar with. I'm putting my trust in the faculty to be scholars and professionals, because I very much want to learn and prepare for ministry. In the meantime, perhaps I'll have a chance to meet Professor Werntz, and over the years be able to see more up-close how the Baptist Studies Center progresses. 

Update 18 June 2020:
The following exchange happened last night on Twitter, and I thought it would be fun to include here.